About two years ago in northern Uganda, I watched anxiously as an endangered pangolin was released into a protected forest. Wildlife authorities and conservationists had rescued the scaly mammal from poachers. The small, gentle creature fell off the tree he was trying to climb and weakly crawled into the underbrush. Pangolins tend to die in captivity so release into the wild was the best option for survival. But the odds were stacked against him, in many ways.
The pangolin is likely the world’s most poached and trafficked mammal largely because of voracious demand for its scales and meat from China and other Asian countries. As Asian pangolins are decimated, Africa has increasingly become the source. Around the world, more than 1 million pangolins were traded illegally between 2000 and 2013 – and that figure could be conservative. Pangolins may be headed for extinction, conservationists warn.
Now, as authorities in China and around the world race to contain the deadly coronavirus, which has killed more than 1,300 people and infected at least 60,000, the beleaguered pangolin is unexpectedly in the spotlight. The scaly anteater may be a host of coronavirus, said scientists at South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou, according to Chinese news agency Xinhua. The coronavirus is also similar to two viruses that circulate in bats.
The research suggesting a 99 percent genetic match between coronavirus in pangolins and humans has yet to be published. However, independent scientists in the US, UK and Canada quoted in Nature said this connection seemed plausible.
Scientists of course avoid speculation and rely on evidence to form opinions. Even the International Union of Concerned Scientists (IUCN) –a global advocate for pangolins– was cautious about evaluating these news claims.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that the authorities in China and elsewhere should crack down on the illegal trade of pangolins and other animals. Conservationists have long trumpeted the cruelty of the wildlife trade, along with its nefarious nexus with other illicit commerce such as drugs. Now there is a compelling and urgent case for quashing the public health threat of illegal animal trafficking, with no health and safety regulations.
“Wildlife trafficking is not just a conservation issue; it can also affect public health and the economy,” wrote Peter Knights, chief executive of conservation group WildAid, in an email.
The coronavirus outbreak again underscores the looming threat of zoonotic diseases –illnesses carried from animals to humans– including SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Disease). Alarmingly, zoonoses are 3 out of every 4 new infectious diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The coronavirus is believed to have originated in a market selling illegal wildlife in Wuhan, China. If and how the coronavirus jumped from bats or pangolins to humans is still uncertain. But you don’t need a scientific paper to understand that shutting down the illegal wildlife trade could help reduce the serious health risk of eating animals that belong in forests and jungles, not the dinner table or in markets.
China has already taken some steps to limit the wildlife trade. On Jan. 26, it imposed a temporary nationwide ban on the wildlife trade in markets, restaurants and on e-commerce websites. In the aftermath of the SARS outbreak in 2002, Chinese authorities cracked down on illegal wildlife markets and traders. “But such clampdowns need to be permanent,” said Richard Thomas of conservation group Traffic in an email.
Through tighter enforcement and public awareness campaigns, China can take a groundbreaking step forward. It can use its might to stop the illicit wildlife trade and consumption of animals like the pangolin; catching, selling and eating them is illegal anyway. China’s landmark 2018 ban on ivory helped dampen demand and gave endangered elephants a better chance of survival.
Other hotspots for illegal trade such as Vietnam and Malaysia must also step up. Some African countries are slowly ramping up enforcement, but much more needs to be done.
Pangolins are shy, elusive and probably nocturnal creatures that are not a threat to humans and should not be caught or culled. Wildlife rangers and conservation biologists I met in Uganda had never seen one in the wild. You have to try very hard (or be extremely lucky) to see one. Pangolins should be left alone in their remote natural habitats in Asia and Africa.
Admittedly, most pangolin seizures have been of scales, as well as carcasses. In January, Nigerian authorities in Lagos seized 9.5 tons of scales, which are falsely believed to have medicinal properties. But there are cases of live animals being transported too. Last March a truck was seized in Thailand carrying 76 live pangolins from Indonesia and headed for China.
The coronavirus has cast an unexpected spotlight on the illegal animal trade. But cracking down on it will likely save human lives – and give embattled pangolins and other creatures a better chance of survival.
Amy Yee is a journalist and former Financial Times correspondent.